Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha

PSALM 78:1-39


"1. Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2. I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3. things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
4. We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.

5. He established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children;
6. that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
7. so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
8. and that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.

9. The Ephraimites, armed with the bow,
turned back on the day of battle.
10. They did not keep God's covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
11. They forgot what he had done,
and the miracles that he had shown them.
12. In the sight of their ancestors he worked marvels
in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
13. He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap.
14. In the daytime he led them with a cloud,
and all night long with a fiery light.
15. He split rocks open in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly from the deep.
16. He made streams come out of the rock,
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

17. Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
18. They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
19. They spoke against God, saying,
'Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
20. Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out
and torrents overflowed,
can he also give bread,
or provide meat for his people?'

21. Therefore, when the LORD heard, he was full of rage;
a fire was kindled against Jacob,
his anger mounted against Israel,
22. because they had no faith in God,
and did not trust his saving power.
23. Yet he commanded the skies above,
and opened the doors of heaven;
24. he rained down on them manna to eat,
and gave them the grain of heaven;
25. Mortals ate of the bread of angels;
he sent them food in abundance.
26. He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
and by his power he led out the south wind;
27. he rained flesh upon them like dust,
winged birds like the sand of the seas;
28. he let them fall within their camp,
all around their dwellings.
29. And they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved.
30. But before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
31. the anger of God rose against them
and he killed the strongest of them,
and laid low the flower of Israel.

32. In spite of all this they still sinned;
they did not believe in his wonders.
33. So he made their days vanish like a breath,
and their years in terror.
34. When he killed them, they sought for him;
they repented and sought God earnestly.
35. They remembered that God was their rock,
the Most High God their redeemer.
36. But they flattered him with their mouths;
they lied to him with their tongues.
37. Their heart was not steadfast toward him;
they were not true to his covenant.
38. Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity,
and did not destroy them;
often he restrained his anger,
and did not stir up all his wrath.
39. He remembered that they were but flesh,
a wind that passes and does not come again."

Like many other peoples, the Hebrew people loved to recall the story of their ancestors, but especially to speak of what God had done for them. Judges 5:11 tells how when people met at their "watering places" (their wells) to draw water, they told and sang of "the triumphs of the Lord". They also drew lessons from the stories of the past about the way that they should live.

The call to remember

When the psalmist speaks of a "parable" and "dark sayings", he means that the story of the wonderful acts of God is a story with a meaning. Each chapter in the history and experience of God's people has lessons for future generations. Trouble begins when we refuse to learn from history (note the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:11-12). As the law instructed parents to tell their children of "the glorious deeds of the Lord", so the writer of the psalm would tell of "the wonders that (God) has done". This part of the psalm tells of how God set the people of Israel free from their slavery in Egypt, and how he helped them to cross the water to freedom, and led them by a pillar of cloud in the daytime and a pillar of fire at night (as is told in Exodus 13:17-14:30). He provided them in the wilderness with the water that they needed to drink (Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-11), and food to eat, the manna (Exodus 16) and the quails (Numbers 11:31-35). So the psalmist uses Israel's history to teach lasting lessons of God's guidance and protection and provision for those who have taken the risk of responding to his call in faith.

The results of forgetting

When people do not keep in mind what great things God has done in the past, they lose sight of the power and love of God and the importance of trusting him and obeying him. This can happen to an individual, and it can happen to a whole community. Verse 8 tells the sad story of the way that Israel, forgetting what God had done for them, became "a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God." God had given them his special covenant (verse 10), but they didn't keep it. He had made his ways known, but "they refused to walk according to his law". Instead they wanted to go their own way, "rebelling against the Most High" (verse 17).

All down the years among Jewish people and among Christians this story has been repeated, how that generation who came out of Egypt died in the wilderness and were not able to go into their promised land because they forgot God's goodness and God's judgment (verses 32-34). The New Testament tells this story in Hebrews 3:7-18 and 4:1-13, and also gives us warning from the past history, "Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God."

One wonders if people ever learn the obvious lessons from history. Are people not able to learn? Or do they distort or misread history? In country after country we watch the exploitation of the people by unscrupulous politicians; and we witness the ignominious end of these dictators and oppressors. Surely the leaders of today would learn from the errors of the past. New leaders quickly condemn those who have gone before, but soon become worse and more evil themselves. The same applies to individuals. A person ruins the family of another by adulterous intrusion into it. Will the adulterer be a darling angel to the woman he has snatched away, or will he in turn be unfaithful? We are frail humans, and need to learn from history to depend on God, or we shall surely fall.

Judgment and mercy

It was sad that the story that had to be told of Israel's past was not just a story of the great things that God had done for them, but also of their failure. God provided them with water even when there seemed to be none in sight. Yet they doubted his power and love, and said, "Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" In other words, 'is he able to give us the food we need'? At one point God said to Moses, "How long will this people despise me? And how long with they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?" (Numbers 14:11) History is meant not only to warn us against arrogance and unbelief, but to teach us to trust God. "Do you not remember?" Jesus asked his disciples (Mark 8:18). Verses 21-22 speak of God's righteous anger at their lack of faith. They had to experience his chastening judgments. Verses 29-31 speak of what is described in Numbers 11:33-34, one of the most tragic chapters in their story. There were times when "they repented and sought God earnestly" (verse 34). Often even when they professed to turn to him, there was no sincere repentance or genuine faith, but in reality "they lied to him with their tongues" (verse 36), and "their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not true to his covenant" (verse 37). Yet even though there were times when God's righteous judgment came on the people, he acted towards them in mercy, and he sought to lead them back to a true trust in him. "He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, --- often he restrained his anger ---. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again" (verses 38-39).

Meditation Think of the reasons that Psalm 103 gives for our blessing the Lord, especially verses 13-18 of that psalm.

For further thought and study

a. Learning from history is made personal when parents tell their children what God has done in the past and how they should serve him. Read what is said in Exodus 13:3-10, Deuteronomy 4:9-10 and 6:4-9, and think what that means for Christian parents today? How should they teach their children God's ways?

b. List and think about the different ways in which the people's failure and sin are described in this part of the psalm - in verses 8, 10, 11, 17, 18, 22, 32, 36 and 37.


1. In the heading of the psalm we have the name of Asaph as in the previous psalms, and "Maskil" the meaning of which we have considered in Note 1 on Psalm 42.

2. It is not certain what event is referred to in verse 9. The Ephraimites were northern tribes and their failure is referred to later in the psalm in verse 67.

3. Zoan, which is spoken of in verse 12, was in the part of Egypt near where the River Nile went out to the sea, and in the time when the Hebrews were oppressed in Egypt, it was Egypt's capital.

4. We need to realise that poetic language is used when verse 13 refers to the waters standing "like a heap", the "splitting" of the rocks in verse 15, and manna as "the bread of angels" in verse 25, but all of these expressions tell of ways in which God did indeed provide for the people.

PSALM 78:40-72


"40. How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved him in the desert!
41. They tested God again and again,
and provoked the Holy One of Israel.
42. They did not keep in mind his power,
or the day when he redeemed them from the foe;
43. when he displayed his signs in Egypt,
and his miracles in the fields of Zoan.
44. He turned their rivers to blood,
so that they could not drink of their streams.
45. He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them,
and frogs, which destroyed them.
46. He gave their crops to the caterpillar,
and the fruit of their labour to the locust.
47. He destroyed their vines with hail,
and their sycamores with frost.
48. He gave over their cattle to the hail,
and their flocks to thunderbolts.
49. He let loose on them his fierce anger,
wrath, indignation, and distress,
a company of destroying angels.
50. He made a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death,
but gave their lives over to the plague.
51. He struck all the firstborn in Egypt,
the first issue of their strength in the tents of Ham.
52. Then he led out his people like sheep,
and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
53. He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid;
but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
54. And he brought them to his holy hill,
to the mountain that his right hand had won.
55. He drove out nations before them;
he apportioned them for a possession
and settled the tribes of Israel in their tents.

56. Yet they tested the Most High God,
and rebelled against him.
They did not observe his decrees,
57. but turned away and were faithless like their ancestors;
they twisted like a treacherous bow.
58. For they provoked him to anger with their high places;
they moved him to jealousy with their idols.
59. When God heard, he was full of wrath,
and he utterly rejected Israel.
60. He abandoned his dwelling at Shiloh,
the tent where he dwelt among mortals,
61. and delivered his power to captivity,
his glory to the hand of the foe.
62. He gave his people to the sword,
and vented his wrath on his heritage.
61. Fire devoured their young men,
and their girls had no marriage song.
64. Their priests fell by the sword,
and their widows made no lamentation.
65. Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,
like a warrior shouting because of wine.
66. He put his adversaries to rout;
he put them to everlasting disgrace.

67. He rejected the tent of Joseph,
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim;
68. but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves.
69. He built his sanctuary like the high heavens,
like the earth, which he has founded forever.
70. He chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
71. from tending the nursing ewes he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
72. With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skilful hand."

The story continues as it has begun in the earlier part of the psalm, telling of three things: what God did in love and power for his people, how they forgot and turned away from him, and how he then showed both judgment and mercy towards them.

God's faithfulness

As the great acts of God continue to be told here, there is special emphasis on the way God set his people free when they had been oppressed in Egypt. He did his "signs" and "miracles" (verse 43), the plagues of blood, of flies, of frogs, of locusts, and of hail (verses 44-50), which are described in Exodus chapters 7 to 10. Finally there was the Passover (verse 51) which even now is kept by Jewish people in remembrance of the final act that caused the Egyptians to let them go free. Then God led them through the wilderness, across the sea (as verse 13 has described), and then helped them to settle into what was to be their land.

Israel's unfaithfulness

In spite of all that was done for them, "yet they tested the Most High God" (verse 56). In fact, the psalmist has to say, "How often they rebelled against him -- . They tested God again and again" (verses 40 and 41). Notice the words used to describe their sin as it truly was (the words are repeated in verses 17-18, 40-41 and 56). It was rebellion against God. It grieved him. It provoked him to righteous anger and to chastening judgment. And three times it says that "they tested God" (Jerusalem Bible says "they challenged God"). With their idols and "their high places" they compromised the worship of Yahweh, their true God with the worship of other gods. Verses 60-64 refer to the time when Samuel was born. The worship of God was corrupt, and God allowed the Philistines to conquer Israel (as 1 Samuel 3-4 tells us). The house of God was at Shiloh, but God "abandoned" it (verse 60). That was a reminder that people are wrong if they feel that they are safe simply because they have a sanctuary or temple or church. Many generations after this the prophet Jeremiah reminded the people of Jerusalem what had happened to Shiloh, and warned them of what could happen to them and to their temple (see Jeremiah 7:1-15). Shiloh was destroyed, and later the temple came to be built on Mount Zion (verse 68). The Northern Kingdom (called "Joseph" and "Ephraim" in verse 67) fell, and God's purpose had to be worked out through Judah, the Southern Kingdom (verse 68). Yet Judah needed the warning, as we do still today, that only those who keep faithful to the Lord can enjoy his blessings.

God as Shepherd to his people

As we saw in the first part of the psalm, so here we see God's judgment and his mercy. There was judgment on Shiloh and later on the Northern Kingdom. But God wanted to be a Shepherd to his people, leading them, seeking them, and bringing them back when they went astray. So "he led them" out of Egypt (verse 53), through the wilderness, to the land of Canaan. God also wanted human leaders who would be shepherds of his people. The Old Testament often speaks of prophets, priests and kings as shepherds. In particular the last three verses of the Psalm tell how God chose David to be king. David knew what it was to be a shepherd caring for a flock of sheep. God called him to a much greater task, to be shepherd of Israel, and he "took care of them with unselfish devotion and led them with skill" (verse 72, Good News Bible). That example of David is a great challenge to all who aspire to or find themselves in positions of leadership, especially in the church.

Meditation Those who know God as Good Shepherd are called to be shepherds. See 1 Peter 5:1-4. True leaders guide, protect and provide for those whom they lead; they never harass or terrorise them.

For further thought and study

a. What is meant when people are said to be "testing" God? See Exodus 17:1-7, Numbers 14:20-25 and especially the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:5-7.

b. In what ways do we have a fuller knowledge of God as Good Shepherd through the life and ministry of Jesus? See especially Matthew 18:10-14, Luke 15:1-7 and John 10:1-30. Notes

1. In verse 51 "Ham" is used to mean Egypt, as according to Genesis 10:6 the Egyptians are said to be descended from Ham.

2. In verse 57 the people were likened to "a treacherous bow". The bow, with its arrows, was a most important weapon for people in those days, but if it was twisted it became completely unreliable.

3. Verse 65 says "the Lord awoke as from sleep", and even describes him as a warrior excited by drinking wine. It is a poetical way of speaking. Of course God never sleeps (note Psalm 121:3-4), but when it seemed that he had not been active on behalf of the people, psalmists sometimes prayed, as we have seen, that God would rise up to help them (see Psalm 68:1 and 74:22). In fact, if God seems not to be active to help, it is most likely because his people have turned away from him or have not been earnest in praying to him.